Longing for social contact akin to hunger cravings, scientists find

November 25, 2020

A lonely person looking upon people having fun together activates the same brain region that lights up when someone who is hungry sees a picture of a plate of food, according to neuroscientists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), US. Their findings provide a clue as to how social stress or social isolation affects people’s behaviour and motivation; they also hope to predict how isolation affects different age groups and how to alleviate these cravings.

“People who are forced to be isolated crave social interactions similarly to the way a hungry person craves food,” said Rebecca Saxe, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT. “[Our findings] fits the intuitive idea that positive social interactions are a basic human need, and acute loneliness is an aversive state that motivates people to repair what is lacking, similar to hunger.”

Hoping to mimic a sudden and strange isolation environment, the neuroscientists enlisted 40 healthy college students as volunteers and confined them to a windowless room on MIT’s campus for 10 hours – they were not allowed to use their phones or see or speak to anyone, essentially avoiding any social contact.

The same instructions applied to a fasting experiment conducted at MIT on a different day.

The volunteers had also been trained beforehand on how to get into an MRI machine, so that they could do it by themselves when the period of isolation or fasting ended; and were scanned to observe brain activity while they were looking at images of food, images of people interacting, and neutral images such as flowers.

Neuroscientists found that when their socially isolated subjects saw photos of people enjoying social interactions, the “craving signal” within a tiny structure in the midbrain known as substantia nigra would be similar to the signal produced when they saw pictures of food after fasting. This amount of activation in the substantia nigra was later identified to be a general signal representing a variety of cravings, but correlated with how strongly the volunteers rated their feelings of craving either food or social interaction.

Responses to isolation also varied depending on the subject’s normal levels of loneliness – certain volunteers who reported feeling chronically isolated months before the study was done showed weaker cravings for social interaction after the 10-hour isolation period than those who reported a richer social life.

Now that the researchers have established that they can observe the effects of social isolation on brain activity, Saxe says they can try to answer many additional questions, such as whether virtual social contacts such as video calls help to alleviate cravings for social interaction.

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